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James Comey Continues Criticism of Trump; Did Politics Play Role in Comey's Decisions on Clinton E-mail Investigation; Interview with John Podesta; Trump Puts Breaks on New Sanctions on Russia; Interview with Sen. Rand Paul. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired April 17, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: For many people, it's important to understand, the obstruction case really begins where the FBI director's tenure ended. The idea of what was the basis for firing this particular person? It was about Flynn? Was it about Flynn beforehand? Was it about the Russians? What he knows up to that point really calls for him to find out, what was his mental state? Everything he's telling you in this book is everything about what the president's thought process was.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: What about fallout for this book?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's not good. He's going to keep his 30, 35, 40 percent support. People who like President Trump are going to stay with him. But it is giving heartburn for Republicans. We are heading into a midterm election right now, and this is not helpful for him when constituents are asking particular Senators and congressmen back home to respond.

CATHERINE RAMPELL, CNN POLITICAL COMMENATATOR: On the other hand, Trump is fundraising off this book. I got a fundraising request about Jim Comey is a lying slime ball, give me some money.

BLITZER: How much did you give him?

RAMPELL: Zero. Zero. Sadly, my profession, unlike Hannity's, apparently, prohibits that.

BLITZER: You should be happy you can't make contributions.

RAMPELL: Exactly.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very, very much.

Coming up, Comey contradictions. Did politics play a part in Comey's decision to reveal the investigation of Hillary Clinton's e-mails just a few days before the 2016 election?

Plus, we're following breaking news out of Philadelphia. What caused a pretty terrified emergency landing of a Southwest plane. You see it on the ground right now. That engine blown apart.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [13:36:01] BLITZER: A contradiction from the former FBI Director James Comey who says he took the polls into account before announcing the continuation of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation only a few days before the election. Listen.


JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump. So I'm sure that it was a factor. Like I said, I don't remember spelling it out, but it had to have been, that she's going to be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she'll be illegitimate the moment she's elected.


BLITZER: But in that same interview with ABC News, Comey said he wasn't acting with political fortunes in mind.


COMEY: A whole lot of me was thinking, oh, my god, did we have some role in this? Did we have some impact on the election?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: What does your gut tell you?

COMEY: I don't know the answer. In a way, I care about the answer, and in a way, it doesn't matter at all.

I really wasn't making decisions based on political fortunes.


BLITZER: Here with us is John Podesta, the former chairman with the Hillary Clinton campaign, former White House chief of staff for President Clinton.

What's your reaction, John, to that explanation from Comey?

JOHN PODESTA, FORMER CHAIRMAN, HILLARY CLINTON CAMPAIGN & FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I think you have to hold two thoughts in your mind about Jim Comey and the interview with George, looking the other interviews he's done. I haven't read the book. The first is, he does believe in the rule of law. And I think he's committed to the truth. But that doesn't mean he can't make terrible errors of judgment. I think in this case, as he noted, he let politics interfere with long- time precedent going back decades from Republican and Democratic administrations. He never really explained why he thought it was too close to the election to sign on to a letter that Jeh Johnson and Jim Clapper sent on October 8 that they believed the Russians were interfering in the election, because he felt that was too close to the election. He never explained, but I think disingenuously --


BLITZER: He never explained why he released the information to Congress, and it was admitted 11 days before the election, his explanation was they found thousands of these e-mails on Anthony Weiner's laptop and they didn't know what was in it. If he wouldn't have released that information, and Hillary Clinton had been elected president, he assumed she would be elected president --


BLITZER: -- then his explanation could be seen as illegitimate.


PODESTA: He took the binding choice, do I seek or do I conceal?


BLITZER: Do you blame him for her loss?

PODESTA: I think it contributed to her loss. I think when you win by three million votes but lose by less than 80,000 votes in three states that decided the election, there's a lot that should be factors, but I think this was a very significant factor. I think, at the end of the day, he made, as I said, a terrible error of judgment. It wasn't a binary choice. He had the information about Weiner's laptop three weeks earlier. It only took them a week to look at those e-mails and conclude they were just duplicates of what they had already looked at and dismissed the matter. He could have done that quietly. He didn't need to do what he did, which was send a letter to Jason Kapitz (ph), the Republican firebrand chairman of the committee at the time. He knew that would leak out immediately. He knew Trump would use that in the last 10 days of the election. I think he just made a terrible error of judgment. And I think Republicans and Democrats that had served in senior levels of the department, including the person who was just -- who preceded him as deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, all concluded that this was the wrong move.

BLITZER: Let me get your reaction --


BLITZER: -- on sensitive things he's been saying in these interviews. He was asked to comment on why Loretta Lynch, then-attorney general of the United States, told him to refer to the Clinton e-mail controversy as a "matter" rather than an investigation. Listen to his reaction to that.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you think she was doing that to protect Hillary Clinton?

[13:40:07] COMEY: I didn't know. It worried me, gave me an uncomfortable feeling, because the Clinton campaign had to come up with other words to describe it. I thought, as much as I like her, I have to step away from her and show the American people the FBI's work separately.


BLITZER: You were chairman of the Clinton campaign. Were you coordinating with Loretta Lynch?

PODESTA: No. I don't think I saw Loretta Lynch, because we were working in the Obama administration. The next time I saw her was after the election at Janet Reno's funeral, and I don't think anyone was coordinating with her. One of the problems with someone who thinks they're never wrong and always right is, as David Lenhart said the other day, there is a strength of a line between fake and humorous. I think Loretta Lynch was trying to do her job and didn't make any effort to try to impede the investigation, tried to keep it in the hands of Mr. Comey. As it turned out, at the end of the investigation, he said there is no reason a prosecutor would find this to be a criminal matter. We kept saying it was a security review. Lo and behold, if you look back to his statement on July 5th when he finally announced his decision, he said, you know, this matter belongs in the security review box. I think he's throwing shade on everybody but accepting very little responsibility himself.

BLITZER: He had this message for Hillary Clinton. Listen to this.


COMEY: I hope Hillary Clinton at least reads those parts of the book because I think she will walk away saying, you know what? I still think that guy is an idiot, but you know, he's kind of an honest idiot. And he's trying to do the right thing here.


BLITZER: Have you spoken to Hillary Clinton, gotten her reaction to this?

PODESTA: Not since his interviews and the book.

BLITZER: You know her well. You worked with her for a long time. How do you think she'll respond --


BLITZER: -- when she says, I still think this guy is an idiot, but he's kind of an honest idiot? Do you think she'll agree?

PODESTA: Look, I have done interviews since the election. I've never attacked Mr. Comey for trying to do something that was for a partisan reason. I think it was, to some extent, his arrogance that led him to make a very bad error of judgment. If she doesn't agree with him, I guess I can agree with him that he's an honest idiot. But I thought he was an idiot in the context of this election and it was influential in the outcome. And now we have someone who, as he said, is morally unfit to be president of the United States.

BLITZER: Are you going to read this book?

PODESTA: I don't think so. BLITZER: Do you think Hillary Clinton will read this book?

PODESTA: I doubt it.

BLITZER: John Podesta, thank you.

PODESTA: I read the five-hour transcript. That was enough for me.

BLITZER: John Podesta, thank you very much for coming in.

BLITZER: After his ambassador to the United Nations announces new sanctions against Russia, President Trump apparently slams on the breaks. Why? We'll discuss when we come back.


[13:47:39] BLITZER: No new sanctions on Russia right now, that's what the White House is now saying, but it was just two days ago that Nikki Haley, U.N. ambassador to the United Nations, said there would be sanctions on Russia after that chemical attack on Syria. She expected that announcement yesterday. It did not happen.

Joining us now from Capitol Hill is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. He's a Republican member on the Foreign Relations Committee, also the Homeland Security Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

Let's get to substantive issues you're dealing with right now. Your committee chairman, Bob Corker, described the walk-back by the White House as confusion. Larry Kudlow, the president's new chief economic adviser, says there was no confusion. He simply says Ambassador Haley just got ahead of herself. What was your reaction? Did the White House undercut Ambassador Haley?

SEN. RAND PAUL, (R), KENTUCKY: I think before you talk about sanctions we ought to talk about what evidence was there that Russia was complicit in this attack. In fact, for that matter, I still look at the attack and say Assad must be the dumbest dictator on the planet or maybe he didn't do it. I have yet to see evidence he did do it. The agency claims they have that evidence, but think about it, he's been winning the war for the last couple years. The only thing that would galvanize the war to Assad directly is a chemical attack. It killed relatively few people compared to what could be killed with traditional bombs, traditional machine guns, traditional tanks, so you wonder what made them use chemical weapons. So before we get to Russia, we have to determine that Syria was implicated and then we have to determine the connection between Russia and Syria.

BLITZER: As you know, it's not just the U.S., but France and the U.K. participated in the bombing of these chemical sites in Syria. Are you saying, Senator, the president had bad intelligence?

PAUL: I don't know. I haven't seen the intelligence. We have a briefing this afternoon where I may see some of this, but the difficulty is, these things are not a slam-dunk. This was back in 2013 President Obama looked at that chemical attack, and at that point in time, his general was saying, hey, it's not a slam-dunk, because you can detect there were Syrian claims, you can detect Syrians dropped bombs, but it's sometimes hard to know if they dropped an existing vehicle of weapons, and Syria has been known to use chemical weapons, or if the Syrians did it. If the Syrians did it, it comes back to the question that Assad must be the dumbest dictator on the planet to use chemical weapons when he knows from previous evidence it's the only thing that gets the world galvanized to attack him.

[13:50:18] BLITZER: Or he may have thought he could get away with it. Who knows?

Bob Corker also is expected to put forth an AUMF, and Authorization for the Use of Military Force, new legislation. Do you know what's in it? Are you like to support it? Where do you stand on that?

PAUL: It is a good idea to debate whether we should be at war or not. Unfortunately, the use of authorization force, the resolution they're putting forward actually expands the president's ability to commit war. So if it were a limitation on the president's power, I'd be for it. This actual resolution expands the president's authority. For the first time it will list six or seven groups that we're at war with. Remember after 9/11 we were at war with those who attacked us and those who aided and abetted them. This is going to codify six to seven groups, make 10 to 15 countries we could be at war with. But really, it's limitless. If we have any other groups having activity in any country, the president can go to war there. He has to submit a notice saying, hey guys, we're at war in another country. It's a huge mistake.

BLITZER: You said the president should trust his gut when it comes to Syria. Tell our viewers what you mean. I've heard him over the years many times, he wants the U.S. out of Syria, out of Iraq, out of Afghanistan, thinks the U.S. has spent way too much money there and lost lives.

PAUL: The president's instinct and his campaign rhetoric have all been for less intervention. That's one of the reasons I was attracted to his candidacy. But he's surrounded himself now with advisers that give him the opposite advice. Two weeks ago, he was saying it's time to come out of Syria. There are rumblings that he still believes that. We go from one belief to the opposite reaction. In Afghanistan, he said it's a mistake to keep building their bridges and roads and people hate us and we're sending good money after bad.

To me, it can be distilled down to this, even Pompeo, candidate for secretary of state, he admitted there's no military solution in Afghanistan. Today, we had an assistant secretary of state say there's no military solution in Yemen or in Syria. It's hard for me to understand, to comprehend, they're asking our young men and women to go to war in a war that has no military solution. So are we really reliving Vietnam where we're telling our young men and women take one more village so we can have a little bit more negotiated settlement? I don't think that's what a lot of our young men and women sign up for. I'm saying enough is enough. We should declare victory and come home. BLITZER: Is there any chance you're going to vote to confirm Mike

Pompeo as the next secretary of state?

PAUL: If he came out publicly and said it's time to declare victory and come home but he said he didn't believe that. I challenged him with the president's own word and the president saying it's time to come home and he doesn't agree with that. He will be giving advice to the president that goes against the president's good instincts that the war has run its course.

BLITZER: What about you think about the president's candidate for CIA?

PAUL: I think what she did goes against everything America represents. It's sort of like telling the rest of the world that if they capture our soldiers, it must be OK to torture them because we have appointed someone to be head of the CIA who used to run a torture camp. I think she's a terrible representative, and I will absolutely oppose her coming forward and her nomination.

BLITZER: Let's get to another issue. You held up the last spending bill before it ultimately passed. You blasted it in the past. You have a new proposal, Senator, and its implementation would cut around $7 billion in military spending alone. How are you going to get support from your fellow Republican Senators and Democratic Senators for that matter, some of the Democratic Senators, to cut military spending?

[13:54:36] PAUL: I think conservatives across the country want someone who will hold the line on spending. If Congress can't agree to cut 1 percent across the board, it would be 1 percent across the board and include military. But let's say Congress said they wanted to do it all domestic, they could. The bottom line has to equal 1 percent. A 1 percent cut each year is about $13 billion, actually balances the budget in five years. What's interesting about mu my budget proposal is it's what they want but it's a privileged motion, which means the Senate will vote on it, even if they don't present their own budget. So I'm doing their job for them. I'm presenting a budget for them. I will include instructions to allow for the expansion of health savings accounts. I think we can totally transform and make insurance more competitive and bringing prices down by expanding the marketplace where people could have health savings accounts. I will do two things, balance the budget, balances over five years with a 1 percent across the board cut, but also expand health savings accounts larger than anyone has tried in the past.

BLITZER: As you know, some estimates now projecting a trillion-dollar deficit in the not-too-distant future, annual deficit.

We'll continue this conversation, Senator Paul, down the road.

In the meantime, thank you for joining us.

PAUL: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. Scary moment on a Southwest flight. The plane making an emergency landing after an engine failed midair. We'll have the latest when we come back.